Johnson's early recognition of a bad situation

Vietnam, Bill Moyers, SR #2623, Tape 885, Side 2
You were special assistant up until July.
Could you just repeat that, sir?
Yes. Now. From November 22, 1963 forward I was special assistant to the President responsible for legislative and political affairs and on July 28, 1965, I became special assistant to the President and press secretary and remained as such through February 15, 1967.
Okay. Now, Bill, if you can lean out a tiny bit this way.
Mark it. Clap sticks.
Ya. Anytime.
Ah. I’d like to start off with this, do you think that ahm when LBJ took office at the end of 1963 he ever imagined that he’d have 100,000 or more American troops in Vietnam eighteen months later?
Soon after the assassination the President was seized with an intense intuition that a very dangerous moment had arrived in the history of our relations with Vietnam and our commitments in Southeast Asia.
The occasion was the return, which had been ah scheduled prior to John Kennedy’s assassination of ah Henry Cabot Lodge, the American Ambassador to Vietnam, to advise the Kennedy White House on what alternatives to pursue in South Vietnam. The situation was deteriorating. Ah. The administration, President Kennedy, Secretary of State Rusk, Secretary McNamara and McGeorge Bundy were all in great ah, despair over what was happening early in 1963 in Vietnam and they had scheduled this meeting with Lodge ah to review the situation.
Lodge returned...for the meeting with the new president, Lyndon Johnson, and confronted Johnson with the deteriorating situation and said we need 100 million dollars worth of economic and quasi military aid. The President agreed to it. I think before Kennedy was dead. Ah.
The President agreed to it...either right before or right after the Kennedy funeral, and at dinner one night, he said, I have this terrible feeling ah of something that’s grabbed me around the ankles...and ah won’t let go... That was the beginning of his apprehension. He’s a good poli—that was the beginning of his apprehension.
Start one more time.
That was the beginning of his apprehension. He was a good politician. He knew instinctively as a good politician, when you’ve gone into territory with which you’re unfamiliar where there are dragons you haven’t dealt with and forces you can’t see, ah, and he had from that moment on, this ah powerful contradictory urge to do what as president he thought he had to do and as a good politician ah to...avoid...ah bad situations, and he knew he was into a bad situation.

Vietnam was a low priority for Johnson through 1964

At the beginning of ’64 in early ’64, [clears throat] where did Vietnam fit into his priorities - we know that his main priority at the beginning was...the Great and economic programs. Was Vietnam [clears throat]...up front, or was it still a back burner issue at that stage?
Vietnam all through...1964 was...a small cloud no bigger than a man’s hand...on the horizon of the administration’s, ah, agenda. It kept popping up during the campaign; there would be an incident, ah...of violence...ah, a military action by the VC or...the North Vietnamese regulars.
Um, there would be a bombing, an explosion, uh a guerrilla action - something that would, would force the President to think about it...but never for very long at a time...and never with, ah, as great an interest as he had or we had, in both the campaign of 1964 and the development of the program we intended to present to Congress, after the election of 1964.
All through 1964, the President was...enjoying himself immensely...with being President, with running against Barry Goldwater...and with presiding over a group of task forces I had put frame the legislative programs that were to follow - those were what he enjoyed. He began to see himself in the manner of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the second American Revolution on the domestic front.
Vietnam was something, ah, nagging - it was that invisible grip on his ankle. Ah, it was an occasional demand from the National Security Council for a meeting; it was growing pressure, ah, from Congress; it was speeches made by Barry Goldwater. Ah, but it really was not, ah, a daily concern.

Internal and external pressures on Johnson regarding Vietnam

When you refer to [clears throat] pressures from Congress, what was there a concern on his part - was he more concerned about the [clears throat] right wing, eh, eh, pressures that might have been generated, ah, by the Joint Chiefs of the military, ah...indirectly, or was he concerned more about liberal opinion? Ah, what kind of pressure was coming from Congress on the issue?
Lyndon Johnson felt...several pinchers on...his deliberations about Vietnam. As he looked around the table in his own Cabinet and National Security meetings, looking at...Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense, Kennedy’s Secretary of State, Kennedy’s National Security Council - at Kennedy’s, ah, advisors - he kept asking they think I’m as tough? or as moderate? ...or as bright?...or as tenacious? Or as charming? Or as effective? Or as bold? Or as gracious? As the man they served.
Ah, “if I...don’t take...a tough line in Vietnam, will they say to Joe Kraft...and Joe Alsop, and Walter Lippmann...well, Lyndon Johnson doesn’t have...what it takes?” Ah...once after a very difficult meeting on Vietnam...ah they all left and he stood for a moment talking to a couple of his other advisors and he said, “you know...ah by tonight, ah that decision will be the subject of discussion, and...wherever this take-home crowd meets to have their drinks and...and bemoan the death of Kennedy.” he was, one pincher came from...his own, sometimes how...the inherited advisors perceived him - as tougher or softer, shrewder or blunter...than Kennedy... Much of the concern about Vietnam came from old friends of his in Vietnam - very wise men, like Mike Mansfield...who would call him often.
Mansfield...ah, knew what was happening in Asia...was very much opposed to military escalation...ah, saw sooner than any other person I know in the Congress...the shape of the final outcome, if the earlier commitments were escalated. And he would call the President on the phone.
And the President's sssympathetic - would ask him to write his concerns so that he could share it with his Cabinet members. ...Ah,...Gruening, of Alaska, he...he’d listen to little - Mansfield, of Montana he listened to, ah...often. But even with Congress, at least on...that side of Congress,...ah, Vietnam was not yet a major issue. But the pressure that came came from men like Mansfield, who warned him about...the possible consequences. The pressure from the right came...from....

Johnson's neutralization of Vietnam as a political issue in 1964

Start one more time - the pressure.
Yeah... The pressure from the right came from his anticipation of how Barry Goldwater...would run his campaign...Johnson...figured that Goldwater would be his...opponent in the 1964 election. He preferred someone like Scranton, or, ah...or er- er- er- a lesser known moderate in the Republican Party because he felt then foreign policy would not be that much an issue.
On the other hand, as a politician he relished the chance of running against Goldwater because he...knew he would whomp Goldwater, and he thought that it would be a decisive...mandate, in a negative sense, against the Goldwater domestic policies...and a triumph of the second revolution he wanted to...bring about in domestic affairs.
But he also realized that...he also realized that if Barry Goldwater were his...ah, opponent, and in the meantime Johnson had appeared to be...ah, soft on the Communists or indifferent to Vietnam...or...about to cut and run from Vietnam...that would give Goldwater...a real weapon...ah, to use that he didn’t have otherwise.
He knew that the one issue on which Goldwater could be a formidable...opponent...would be on foreign policy...and in particular...on...standing up to, ah...the Communists. Johnson inherited...what every Democrat since Harry Truman...has...embraced. Johnson inherited what has bo—ah,...Johnson inherited what has bo—Johnson inherited what was plagued every Democrat since Harry Truman- Who lost China?
...Ah, who lost this? Who lost that? Ah...and he saw what happened to the Democratic Party after...the China debacle...and the paranoia that set in...and the cheap shots that could be taken. And he said, “by God, I’m not gonna let that happen to the Democratic Party under me.” And he knew that Barry Goldwater...would raise the old China issue...and the old McCarthy... ah, syndrome, and he just didn’t want to have to, so he knew that the pressure from a Goldwater campaign would come from the-...
Am I...I’m talking too much. My answers are too long.
Well, well listen, I tel—listen- here, what you’re doing, which is marvelous is you’re (beep, beep) you’re soaking up every question [inaudible]
Camera Roll 642 coming up, 642. Okay. Mark it.
Clapsticks. Let me pick up a bullet board. [Inaudible] of which aspect [inaudible].
Look, Lyndon Johnson was nothing if not a life long Democrat. He probably never read a book about the Democratic Party in his life, but his whole bone...was filled with everything that had happened in the Democratic Party from 1932 forward...
And one of the...bitterest...poisons that ran through his memory...of the 30's, and 40's, and 50's was the recurring attack from the Republicans - Who lost China? Who lost China? ...and Harry Truman once told the Truman Museum in Independence...he said ‘By God, Lyndon,’ he said, ‘The cheapest shot that’s ever been made...against me was Who lost China? It wasn’t ours to lose!’ he said.
And he said to him, ‘Never let ‘em get ya...with your back against the fence...on that.’ Johnson had it...had that...apprehension...and anger in him...he didn’t want the Democratic Party again accused of being treason, and he didn’t want the political debate in this be so cheapened by that kind of scurrilous, ignorant...ah, and very damaging political discourse...
...and I think every time he came to the question of Vietnam, in 1964 and would have been impossible for him, even if it were never articulated in the Cabinet meeting, to be unaware...of the possibility of the resurrection of that charge...against the Democratic Party.

Johnson's reluctance to act quickly on Vietnam

And yet...(clears throat)...throughout ’64, especially in the summertime...ah, he...he kind of oozed into it, didn’t he? In other words, hesitation, reluctance. Can you talk to that some more?
Let me back up and make a quick point for you... He knew from the very beginning of his...accidental administration...that Vietnam was going to become something one way or the other. He knew it because when Henry Cabot Lodge came to the White House, following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 - Lodge, and McNamara, and Rusk made it clear to the new President......that one of the most burning issues on the agenda he’d have to resolve was Vietnam. Up until then Johnson had had very little involvement in Vietnam as Vice President...even though he was a part of the meetings. And he didn’t know the situation had deteriorated as rapidly or as radically as it late 1963.
And I remember that after he had the meeting...with Lodge, McNamara, Rusk, and the others...briefing him on the alternatives Lodge was presenting him...he came back and said, "I think I just got an itch." By that he that he meant that...
One more time.
Yes...By that he meant that...something contagious had happened - that while at the moment might be...just a minor irritant (banging)...that at the moment might be just...
One more time.
Yeah... By that I think he meant that he had just...contacted some kind of contagious disease...which although at the moment, a minor irritant was going to become a conflagration, sometime in the course of the Administration. His whole hope, like anyone who has cancer, is to put off the final diagnosis as long as possible - hoping that by some miracle there might be a cure.

The reasons for not escalating earlier

Why didn’t he escalate faster during ’64? He might have...exorcised this problem.
One option was to escalate rapidly - to go and...try to knock the ah opponent in the first round...but Johnson didn’t...see it that way. Ah, there alternative was to go in, in the first round, and try to knock the opponent out. First of all, we didn’t have the means to do it - the military said that. Ah, we’d have to had call up...
One of the alternatives was to go into the first round and try to knock the opponent out, ah, with the first punch, but Johnson knew we didn’t have the means to do that. The military didn’t have the materiel. We would have had to call up the reserves. We would have had to increase the budget by several billion dollars...uh, and that in an election year? Ah, it was politically impossible.
Second, he didn’t want to! He kept wanting a political resolution. He kept wanting the...government of South be strong enough to handle it. He kept hoping that there would be a political option...out. Third, the level of...of perception in Washington was not...that this was the right course. Johnson had this enormous apprehension about...what China would do.
So did Dean Rusk. Dean Rusk might not say it, but was obvious to those of us who listened to him, that he had been deeply imbued...with what Korea, when Dean Rusk was Assistant Secretary of State...for Far Eastern affairs. When...MacArthur got too close to to the...Yalu...and the Chinese hordes came pummeling in...Rusk was aware of that, so was Johnson.
One of the great weaknesses of the evolving policy in Vietnam was that we never really had a true estimate of what the Chinese and the Soviets would do...and they would become the bogeyman. In effect...they became...the...hidden persuaders...of our deliberations about what was going to happen.
The only thing we knew for sure in 1964...was that the government of South Vietnam...couldn’t govern, and the army of South Vietnam...couldn’t fight... What we didn’t know was...what the Soviets and the Chinese intended to do, if into that vacuum, militarily and politically, we moved with large resources and great will. And that ignorance...or lack of information...or failure of perception and analysis...became all through ’64 and ’65, the...bogeyman...because we didn’t know how it would react - we didn’t know how they would react.
So he didn’t...he simply didn’t escalate in 1964 because a) it was premature; b) he wasn’t sure what...a rapid escalation would do both politically and in the campaign against Goldwater; and c) what the Chinese and the Soviets might do.

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution

How did the Tonkin Gulf resolution fit into the ’64 campaign? Was he looking for something to...checkmate Congress to get (clears throat) the, the issue out of the campaign, to get bipartisan support...during the campaign?
The President wasn’t looking for an incident which would enable him to draw from the hip...ah, but he...knew that...if he...[inaudible]...
The President wasn’t looking for an incident in which...ah, he would have to draw from the hip, so to speak. He wasn’t spoiling for a fight. But with all of the reports of increased terrorism, with the increase in the number of guerrilla activities...ah, and the reports in the press that the situation was deteriorating in South Vietnam, he did feel the tell the government of South Vietnam - to demonstrate to the government of South Vietnam - that he was going be tough...and he felt the need, given th—the criticism that was growing about...ah, our refusal to act in Vietnam - to allay the fears...of the hawks in the country, ah, about our intentions.
So when the Gulf of Tonkin occurred, I think he was it justification...ah, for a response - a tit for their tat. I don’t think he saw it anymore...than that. He asked for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution more for political reasons than anything else. He felt that since there was a desire in some parts of Congress for...ah, action in South Vietnam, he wanted them to go along with it.
Second, he felt that...the I recall it...the...chief value of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution to Lyndon Johnson...was that it gave him almost unanimous wave in the face of the North Vietnamese, the Soviets, and the Chinese - “Look,” he was saying to them...ah, “the Congress of the United States is behind...our commitment to preserve the independence of South Vietnam.”
It was a little bit like ah the...Declaration of Independence - the message that the Colonial Fathers intended to send to the British - ah more than it was the language in the declaration itself.
(clears throat) Was it also something he could use against Goldwater?
Th—the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, whether it was intended to be ah eh- eh- eh- or not, became for of a...paper deterrent. ...Uh, every time Goldwater could raise the question about Johnson’s political will, Johnson could raise the paper and say, ‘Look, I’ve got the Congress behind me; they want us to be firm when we have to be firm, but the resolution, ah, is very specific, and, and, and the resolution is our, is is is our banner. Come on, Barry, and, ah, and, and, and walk with this under it.’

Political aspects of military action

Do you think that (clears throat) ah, when he ordered the reprisal bombings after the the Gulf of Tonkin, w-, it was in some way, ah...trying to take the wind out of Goldwater’s sails to show I could be just as tough as Goldwater?
I do not, myself, believe that Lyndon Johnson ever ordered a military action...for domestic political reasons. I just do not believe that. Uh, he did not for all of the...ah, criticism play politics with other people’s lives. Ah, he ordered those bombings because I think he felt they were psychologically...necessary for the government of South Vietnam - psychologically necessary
Okay. It’s going great. (sounds of footsteps and clearing of throat) This is what you looked like.
End Roll... Twelve [inaudible] 2623. [inaudible] (beep)
Sound Roll 2624. Interview continued with Bill Moyers. T885. Vietnam. Camera Roll 643. Mark it. Clapstick.
For all the towering faults and flaws in Lyndon Johnson’s makeup, I never once saw him make a political decision that would expend human life for domestic gain at home. He sometimes made decisions affecting Vietnam because of political pressures but he never would have ordered men to risk their lives simply for political points., it sounds very...self-serving and political to say this, but Lyndon Johnson didn’t want to go to war in Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson didn’t fight there.
He knew it was going to destroy his presidency. The reason from early ’64 forward that Lyndon Johnson became increasingly cantankerous uh...a divided personality uh a man never at ease with himself, was because as on the one hand he was creating this great offensive of domestic reform. He was at the same time slipping gradually into what he knew would be the destruction of that reform.
He wanted to be Franklin Roosevelt...uh, not Ulysses Grant. He wanted to be remembered for what he had done here, not for what he did in the rice paddies of Southeast Asia. And he at every turn of...the screw was at war with himself.
A cabinet officer called me in April of 1964 as the situation was deteriorating in Vietnam and said, after a cabinet meeting, “I’m worried about the President, I’m worried about his mental state. I’m worried about his...increasing schizophrenia.” And I said, “Well that’s understandable. I mean he feels that that...that hand around his ankle is pulling him down. That it’s bringing him, his administration, his whole ambition of a lifetime out where he never intended to be. He resisted, internally, every turn of the Vietnam screw because he saw what is was going to be costing him.
During the campaign we talked often about no wider war. McGeorge Bundy and I in the basement room of the White House wrote for that Los Angeles speech the line that became the hallmark of the critics later, “We seek no wider war.” We didn’t seek a wider war, Johnson didn’t seek a wider war, he didn’t want a wider war. He knew the war would engulf everything that he wanted to do in this country.
At the same time, uh he also knew that if he didn’t fulfill what he thought was an honorable commitment from the United States to South Vietnam, his administration could be lost as well, because it would be engulfed by, who lost Vietnam, it would be engulfed by pressures from the right, it would be engulfed, it lost by criticisms from liberals who supported the Vietnam escalation in ’61, ’62, ’63.
And he felt like a man being pursued by two packs of hounds. And trying to choose a course between them. Uh... The President was often confused, n, n, the President...

The conflict within Lyndon Johnson

Go ahead.
During the campaign, the President said, in effect, “I’m not going to send troops to South Vietnam.” He meant it—in the same way that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in the 1930’s, said we’re not going to fight in Europe.
But as the realities in South Vietnam changed, and came home, grew, and became more apparent, the President changed his...his, his, his policy - not his mind. ...He knew in his mind he didn’t want to send troops. He knew in his mind he didn’t want to be a wartime president. He knew in his mind what Vietnam was gonna do to his policies at home.
But, as Commander in Chief and because there was in him this substantial commitment to the policies of three administrations, he wasn’t going to cut and run.

The Daisy commercial

What was the point of the Daisy commercial? What was it trying to say and why did it on, hm, did you only run it for two days ‘n and yank it? (cough) Excuse me.
Between the Republi—between the Republican convention in San Francisco and the beginning of the campaign in September, Barry Goldwater made a headlong dash for respectability. He wanted, as did Ronald Reagan in the campaign of 1980, to put behind him many of those more radical and rash proposals and speeches that he’d made of all those years in the Senate.
And he began, after the nomination to try to be Mr. Moderate, Mr. Respectable. He tried to stand more in the center of the Republican Party than on the far right. And the President said to me one day, “We’ve gotta remind people of what Barry Goldwater was, BC, before the convention.
We can’t get away with him changing his stripes so suddenly, over night, let’s remind him, figure out some way to remind him. So, I called our television advisors at the Democratic National Convention. They got in touch with Doyle, Dane and Bernbach, the advertising agency in New York, and they came up with a series of commercials designed to remind people of the real Barry Goldwater.
One of those was the Daisy commercial. When I saw the Daisy commercial I knew that it was tough, but I knew that it would accomplish what the President wanted it to accomplish, it would remind people of all the radical, immoderate and harsh things that Barry Goldwater had said about weapons, and war, and communism. Lobbing one into the men’s room - and all of those remarks. And this became one way, in one stroke of...a blunt axe, uh to crack Goldwater’s façade which he had fashioned after the San Francisco convention.
The commercial only ran once because it accomplished its purpose. There was a firestorm, to use a military term, of criticism. But in the criticism it was apparent that the commercial had worked. Barry Goldwater, once again, was a radical.

The low-key approach to escalation

I want to jump ahead to ’65 when the major escalation was decided. Why didn’t Lyndon Johnson hm why wasn’t Lyndon Johnson more candid with the public, tell the public what lay ahead. There were at that stage plans for possibly 200,000 men going into Vietnam and did you discuss this with him, did you try urge him to be more public and what were his, his...uh, his reasons and particular go, take one little incident...
The Marine landing in Danang in March of ’65 was kind of played down, it wasn’t really, hm, played up as a major incident. What was the whole, hm, public relations operation here?
Cut a minute, would ya, I wanta check something.
Tone. ‘S four coming up, Sync 4. Clapstick.
Let me read you from the summary of the meeting that took place on July 27th, 1965, when the last uh, decision about deploying troops uh was made at a meeting of the National Security Council. The summary notes of the executive secretary of the NSC I think provide a very useful perspective to both the dialogue and the framing of the issues.
Uh...the President asked Secretary Rusk to review the political situation. Rusk reported the Chinese remained opposed to any negotiations between North Vietnam and the United States...the government of the North Vietnam. The US did not know...Rusk reported that the Chinese remained opposed to any negotiations between North Vietnam and the United States and South Vietnam.
The US did not know what the North Viet, Vietnamese would do if Rolling Thunder attacks were stopped. Moscow and Hanoi were somewhat cautious and the US intended to keep contact open in the event a new position evolved. Finally, says the summary report, the actions “we are talking should be presented publicly in a low key, but in such a way as to convey accurately that we’re determined to prevent South Vietnam from being taken over by Hanoi.
At the same time, we seek to avoid a confrontation with either the Chinese Communists or the Soviet Union.” One reason that LBJ and the National Security Council took the approach that they did in a low key presentation of the decisions that had been made was because they didn’t want to alarm or alert unnecessarily China and Russia.
Another reason was because they hoped that before the final, ultimate commitment to a full scale involvement in Vietnam, something political would happen. Lyndon Johnson kept offering goodies to the Ho Chi Minh regime if they would only be reasonable and he felt that ts, and there were a lot of contacts out, a lot of people around the world in our behalf approaching Hanoi, Peking and Moscow.
And he kept hoping that the rhetoric of resolve would create a response from the adversary and potential enemy. And so he didn’t want to seem to be going like uh Custer to Little Big Horn—bugles blowing, banners waving, confident of an all out and successful confrontation.
If in the mean time he were to get a signal, let’s talk, let’s don’t meet on the battlefield, let’s meet at the conference table. He also took a low-key approach in the public relations of the decisions because, being a good politician, he was sure that...
We’re running out of film. All right.

Unwillingness to make the Great Society a casualty of war

Tone. Sync 5 coming up. Five. This is uh 644 coming up, camera roll 644, uh Sync 5. Mark it. Clapstick.
The President was a good politician too and he knew politics’ tradeoffs. He knew that if he asked for more money and indicated a greater build up in South Vietnam the conservatives in Congress would say all right we’ll give it to you but we’re going to cut back on the Great Society.
He didn’t want the Great Society to be a casualty of Vietnam. So he didn’t want and didn’t believe that he had to because he didn’t think it would go that far—he didn’t want uh to...uh envision for everybody a full scale war in South Vietnam because he knew one of its victims would be the Great Society.
I’m convinced that many of the problems of the economy in the last twelve years can be traced back to the decision in 1966 not to ask for taxes to pay for the war in Vietnam and the Great Society legislation.
Many of the economists were concerned. They came to me, they knew that I had the ear of the President and they knew that I also had good ties with Secretary McNamara. They convinced me that if we didn’t ask for taxes we were beginning a period of inflationary pressures of profound consequences in this country.
I went privately across the Potomac to meet with Secretary McNamara in his office. I explained to him what the economists had said, I expressed my own doubts, and I said we really must ask for taxes if we’re going to do what has to be done in Vietnam and at home and, unless we’re going to wreck the American economy.
He said, "Bill...If we go to Congress and ask for what we think may finally be necessary in Vietnam, every conservative up there will use it to cut the legs off the President's domestic policies. The President doesn’t want that, I don’t want that, I really think you don’t want that, and I’m sure the American people who are benefiting from these programs don’t want that."
"No," he said, "we have to go the incremental approach so that we never risk what is so important to the administration for what may be finally avoidable in Vietnam. Wouldn’t it be a tragedy," he said, "if we blew the Great Society at home and then didn’t have to fight a real war in Southeast Asia. So let’s go step by step, increment by increment."
I went back across the Potomac, talked to two or three of the economists at the CEA and in the Office of the Budget and we all concluded that whatever happened in Vietnam and on Capitol Hill the economy had, had, just had the props knocked out from under it.

Misunderstanding of Vietnamese leadership

Uh...the President see, Lyndon Johnson, people ta—people talk about Vietnam as if it were an example in the limits of power. Maybe it was. It was also an example of the limits of perception. Lyndon Johnson perceived that the people with whom he was dealing in South Vietnam, whether Thieu in the South...
People talk about Vietnam as if it were an example in the limits of power. Maybe it was. But it was also an example of the limits of perception. Lyndon Johnson and many of his advisors, but particularly the political people around Lyndon Johnson, looked upon the men in South Vietnam and North Vietnam as just an extension of the American political uh spectacle, that they had a price, if you met that price you could get them to be reasonable men.
Lyndon Johnson’s whole philosophy was, come now and let us reason together. Coming back in the helicopter from that speech in 1965 at Johns Hopkins University where he had promised a TVA for the Mekong Valley if only Ho Chi Minh would be reasonable.
He leaned across to an assistant, put his hand on his knee, and said, “Old Ho can’t turn that down, Old Ho can’t turn that down.” See, if Ho Chi Minh had been George Meany, Lyndon Johnson would have had a deal.
The failure to perceive that we were dealing not with men who acted, talked, fought, or saw, as American politicians do, was one of the fundamental uh misperceptions of our whole misadventure in Vietnam.

Johnson's eventual acceptance of the bombing campaign

Let me get onto these hm-hm sort of reaction questions. How did he feel, what was his attitude oh, if you could be precise about it, (ahem) towards the Joint Chiefs, towards the Pentagon, the military when they were pushing him to bomb the North as early in the middle of ’64?
The President felt that the military was telling him about the only option it considered would work. He himself had some real doubts about the bombing because John Kenneth Galbraith and George Ball, both of whom were familiar with the studies after WWII showing that the bombing of Germany didn’t accomplish it’s, it, it’s purposes and, in fact, may have aroused the, the uh...uh, the ire of the Germans and stiffened their backs. So he had some real doubts it. Uh...
He went along with it...finally because the Joint Chiefs, and McNamara, felt this was the only way that you could both signal your resolve to the North and at the same time cut off the flow of supplies. He really did believe them when they said that if you strike at the supply routes uh you will slow them down.
The perception was that they were somehow in the South like uh General Patton was in the rush to the Rhine. That they had these long lines of extended modern, eh material that were getting dangerously low on patrol and that if you struck back at their headquarters and at their quartermasters, you’d slow them down. Once again, you know, the images ofWWII kept flickering across the debates on Vietnam. Munich was a genuine concern to Lyndon Johnson.
The conventional warfare of WWII, uh fighting the last war as the military’s often want to do, played a very big part in all this, and he really did believe that if you struck what the Joint Chiefs of Staff called the pole storage—the petroleum tanks—you could slow down this conflict in the South, because the military just couldn’t perceive that we really were up against jungle fighters, not conventional forces.
I also have to say that the, from the standpoint of history, that all of the intelligence reports in 1965 and late 1964 were saying that the North Vietnamese intended to move toward more conventional conflict, to retreat from the guerrilla and sporadic uh assaults and move larger uh groups of men into...stationary positions from which to launch attacks in the south and the Joint Chiefs convinced the President that if you wanted to break up that conventional approach uh you should do so by bombing in the North. He didn’t want to do it...but he did it because he was Commander in Chief and finally he had held off the recommendations as long as he could.

Johnson's reaction to the Tonkin Gulf Incidents

Could you, hm, I wanta get some sort of just succinct reactions if you could do this. Do you remember uh his reaction or his mood at the time that he heard about the Tonkin Gulf incident?
Yes. He was, at the time of the Gulf of...when he heard about the Gulf of Tonkin res—When he heard about the Gulf of Tonkin, he was infuriated. Uh...he...felt that the American people would not tolerate an attack on an American vessel without some kind of response. Uh, he felt that Ho was putting him to the test. He instantly knew that there would be outcries from Congress for militant action.
He felt that it represented, if not an escalation of the war on their part, at least uh a punch in the nose in a way that would humiliate a great power if it didn’t respond. All of this went through his mind and he also saw it as one dramatic way in which after...weeks and months of seeming indecision, he could convey to Hanoi, to Saigon, and to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue that you were not dealing with uh...a softie.
Do you remember the hm the attack, the terrorist attack on the bachelor officers’ quarters Christmas Eve of ’64? Do you remember his reaction to that?
That was at where?
In Saigon. The Brinks BOQ.
No, I don’t.

The attack on Pleiku

Okay, let’s skip it. What about his reaction at the time of the attack on Pleiku, Mac Bundy was there. Do you recall hm... That’s the thing that triggers the reprisal bombing.
The attack on Pleiku was presented... The attack on Pleiku presented... The attack on Pleiku was received at the White House as if the Germans had just broken through the Maginot Line.
Mac Bundy was on the phone and the President had this sense of, of immediacy, this eh sense of indignation, over again American troops being the trigger, because I don’t believe there was any single trigger in the whole escalation of the Vietnam War but it was one more turning point, because again the American present and American men had been hit; it was a challenge militarily, politically, and in the President’s estimation, globally.
Because if you didn’t respond to that kind of direct affront, why what would your allies think, what would Thailand think, what would happen in Malaysia and what would all of those others who really were relying on the American President, as the President saw it, to uh bolster their anti-communism. How would they take it if the United States looked the other way when its own base was attacked?
If , to put it in personal terms, do you think the fact that Mac Bundy was the one who called...
Ten feet left, I don’t think you can do it. Let’s just get room tone. Everybody quiet. Room tone. Just put your hand down for a second.
645, Camera 645, Sound roll 2625. We’re on a Sync 6 coming up, Sync 6. Correction, this uh camera roll 645, 645. Mark it. Clapstick.
McGeorge Bundy was in Vietnam when the attack on Pleiku came. He got on the phone, called the White House, and the fact that it was McGeorge Bundy, Harvard Dean, cool as a cucumber, shrewd ana—analyst, a man who never lost his, he, his poise- the fact that it was him out there under fire saying, “Mr. President, it’s bad,” left a deep impression on Lyndon Johnson. If it’d been Captain Fred Smith calling, or even...General George Hooligan uh the President would’ve taken it less dramatically and less personally.
But McGeorge Bundy, he knew uh...never lost control of himself and the emotion that he detected in Bundy’s call, and the confidence he had in Bundy’s shrewdness, uh and the fact that it was somebody, by god, from the White House being shot at, suddenly personalized what had been, until then, a distant and detached...and um... very vague...uh possibility.

McNamara's recommendation for more troops in 1965

Let’s go to the summer of of ’65, July particularly, when hm the decision is to grant Westmoreland’s request for forty-four battalions. Hm. At that meeting...could you describe it? Was the decision made at the meeting or was it, had the decision been made earlier and ratified at the meeting?
I don’t know at what moment the President decided to send all the troops that McNamara had recommended. I don’t know that if, anyone knows, including the late President...I don’t know when the moment ar...
Just start again.
I don’t think anyone really knows the moment Lyndon Johnson decided in his own mind to give McNamara what he wanted. Uh, certainly it was at that meeting in July that he ratified the decision. And I think the decision had actually been made a long time ago. I think it had been made in...December of 1963. I think it had been made in April of 1965. I think it had been made two weeks before the final meetings.
I think the President sensed the inevitable...knew he could have to do what he was going to do, but didn’t want to do it, and hoped that in these meetings that had been scheduled somebody might say something, someone might bring some new information to the table, somebody might be able to prevent him heading toward a bridge that wasn’t there. But nobody did...And so he went on. Uh...

George Ball's proposal for withdrawal

George Ball did. Why did he reject George Ball’s ...[inaudible]?
Well...George Ball made a very persuasive case. Uh and everyone listened. But there is a, a memorandum from McGeorge Bundy to the President on July 1, 19...siss ’65 in which...
Okay. All right, go ahead.
All right. The reason that George Ball wasn’t listened to is because no one ever truly considered his option...uh one... The reason George Ball wasn’t listened to is because no one ever believed that that option was one any... I’m sorry.
The reason George Ball wasn’t listened to is because nobody...
The reason George Ball wasn’t listened to is that nobody entertained that as a real possibility. Even Maxwell Taylor in his memoirs when asked at that critical moment why you didn’t you recommend withdrawal?...shakes his head in print and says, withdrawal never occurred to me.
There was that memorandum that McGeorge Bundy wrote on the first of July, 1965 to the President in which he discussed McNamara’s proposals including the option of a withdrawal and Bundy...uh referring to Ball’s dissident, uh said, quote, to the President, “My hunch is that you will want to listen hard to George Ball and then reject his appro—his proposal.”
I haven’t told that well, wait a minute...I think this is a key, I, I, I think this is key...
George Ball's option of withdrawal was never one that anybody around that table except perhaps George Ball considered viable. And by viable I mean workable. Uh...the options came in from McNamara, McGeorge Bundy wrote a covering memorandum, sent them to the President, setting up this...
I’m sorry...battery’s given way so we just need to...
In his memoirs, Taylor...
Tone. Sync, sync 7 coming up on camera roll 645. Okay, mark it. Clapstick. Go ahead.
The real reason that the Ball...
The real reason the Ball option was never considered is because none of the heavies were for it. None of the heavies really believed that it was an option. If George Ball had been Secretary of State in in instead of Under Secretary of State, uh it might have been different.
But he was a second level player and no one ever assumed from the beginning, from 1963 on, except possibly George Ball, that this was a workable option.
Maxwell Taylor has said time and time again that he is asked the question “Why didn’t you consider recommending a total withdrawal from Vietnam,” and he scratches his head and says, “It never occurred to me to recommend withdrawal.”
On July 1st, 1965, in attaching a covering memorandum to McNamara’s proposals to the President getting ready for that, those important meetings, uh McGeorge Bundy said, quote, “My hunch is that you will want to listen hard to George Ball and then reject his appro—proposal.” Or consider the way McNamara’s recommendations were framed to him. He sent this memorandum over to the President, “Here are our options. Option number one: cut our losses and withdraw under the best conditions that can be arranged. Almost certainly conditions hemuliat, hu...
Yeah. ...
Here’s the memorandum that Mc—Or consider the memorandum in which Secretary McNamara framed the three options. Option number one was to cut our losses and get out. Option number two a middle course. Option number three was to give the military in Vietnam what it wanted. Listen to the way the first option was phrased.
“Cut our losses and withdraw under the best conditions that can be arranged- almost certainly, conditions humiliating the United States and very damaging to our future effectiveness on the world scene."
Ha, and now you’re President and you have this memorandum from the Secretary of Defense and it says you can cut our losses and withdraw under the best conditions, however it’s gonna make of fool of you in the world. I mean that was an option the very framing of which presumed its rejection.
There was plenty of information in that period of time, lots of discussion, and many options discovered, and discussed. But, there was no hard analysis of the option of withdrawal because no one, no one that I know from those days, believed that the option of getting out was truly an option that would work or that they wanted.

Johnson's belief that the war was unwinnable

...Let me take you up to the end of 1965. Now we have almost 200,000 troops there, uh we’ve won the battle of Ia Drang. Where did Lyndon Johnson think he was going at that stage? Did he think he was going to go on and win the war or did he think he, did he still think he might negotiate his way out of it.
By the end of 1965, by the end of 1966, even though we were flooding troops into Vietnam, the President never thought he would win that war. And that became the source of his continuing agitation, inner turmoil, the schizophrenic qualities that people saw into him, he was like a man in a race who had lost control of the wheel but knew he had to stay in the race even though the outcome was predictable.
He did not believe he could win the war. He did think that perhaps somebody could negotiate him out of it. He still believed until the very end that the other side would be reasonable. When I went to the ranch in 1966 and informed the President that I was leaving the White House, we drove for seven hours around the ranch, just the two of us.
We sat for a long time as the sun was disappearing over the far horizon of the LBJ ranch and we talked about Vietnam. He said, “If history brings me out”...that is, if the Communists don’t take over South Vietnam “I will be considered by posterity a great man who took a great risk and won, and it’ll all be all right.” “If it doesn’t come out,” he said, “if the Communists wind up running South Vietnam I will be considered an obscure footnote, a man who gambled all he had, and lost.”
I, I think he wanted negotiation and knew he couldn’t get it. I knew he didn’t want to fight a war but felt he had to, and in the end...who knows? There’ the spring of 1965 every report coming in from Vietnam was that the government of South Vietnam and the military of South Vietnam was on the verge of of collapse and I had dinner one night, late, just alone with the President, he was commiserating about this, he was agitating, he was beginning to see more and more how the trap had been sprung. Uh no one sprung it, it was sprung. It, it, it, it, the quagmire was swallowing him up, the hand around the ankle was pulling him down.
Every report, the CIA, the military, the Embassy, uh, independent observers who had been there, were saying Vietnam is on the verge of collapse. And the President says I feel like a hitchhiker caught in a hailstorm on a Texas highway. I can’t run, I can’t hide, and I can’t make it stop. I think he knew then that the course was set...a course he felt, even he as President couldn’t avoid.
And of course the tragedy of Vietnam is that all along the way no one really thought that any human intelligence could take over and stop it. Uh, that to me is the ultimate tragedy, of Vietnam that the policy making process moves of its own momentum and men surrender...the power to stop the process or to change the policy.
I don’t know what...we’re missing but I’m not sure if I’m gonna miss it.
Tone. No, you wouldn’t miss it.

Moyers' impressions of Johnson's personality

This is camera roll 646, coming up. Sync 8.
...even though this is general it also fits into the specific, the schizo...
Mark it. Clapstick.
What made Johnson tick? What kind of man was he?
Well, there were many men. Lyndon Johnson was many lives. He was the preacher which he, his mother’d wanted him to be. He was the teacher which he had thought he would be. He was the politician which he chose to be. He was many, many...uh personalities in that huge frame of his. And his personality ranged from...manic depressive to uh...benevolence...
Lyndon Johnson was more of anything the rest of us are. If he was angry, he was angrier than we get. If he was affectionate, he was more affectionate than we are. If he was uh indignant, his indignation swelled far beyond ours. If he was effusive, his effusiveness went beyond description. Whatever the range of human emotions that those of us who are ordinary contain, Lyndon Johnson carried them to an extreme not yet quantifiable on any personality test yet devised.
I think that’s it.
Yes. Bob? Monsieur le directeur. Tone.